Foundation helps schools launch scratch-cooking programs

Written and published by Food Management, December 4, 2017

This fall, LJ Klinkenberg introduced a new menu item at Cheney School District in Washington: chicken and lentil Korean street tacos. 

Klinkenberg, director of nutrition services, says students like that it’s a trendy-sounding food. “But they’re also getting lentils that are coming in from literally less than an hour from here.” 

Cheney students eat a variety of meals like this one, all made by district cooks: chicken and waffles, barbecue pulled pork sandwiches, deep-dish turkey potpies and pizza made with a naturally fermented crust from a local purveyor. About 80 percent of the food purchased by the district comes in the form of whole commodity or locally sourced ingredients.

A total of nine school districts in eastern Washington run scratch-cooking programs like this one, launched through partnerships with Empire Health Foundation. Cheney started its program in 2011 as one of the foundation’s pilot partners, at the dawn of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. 

“Our very first strategic initiative was to see to see what we could do to reduce childhood obesity rates in eastern Washington,” says Laura Martin, program associate for the foundation. 

The foundation has invested nearly $3 million dollars in its Healthy Kids, Healthy Schools initiative, which serves a mix of people living in urban, suburban and rural areas in a seven-county area and on tribal lands. The population mirrors those in other parts of the country: About one in three children are considered overweight or obese.

Partner districts deliver 4.7 million scratch-cooked meals yearly, serving 44% of the total K-12 student population in the region. In the Cheney School District, they’ve seen a 4.5 percent (statistically significant) reduction in the number of students classified as overweight or obese over a period of five years. It appears that they’re on the right track.

The foundation provides training for kitchen employees, connects schools with funding streams for needs such as kitchen equipment and helps districts reimagine their meal programs—from menu modifications to marketing plans. 

Klinkenberg, who served as the foundation’s liaison to school districts before he took the position in Cheney, says training kitchen workers to be school cooks is the foundation’s top priority. “There was a generation of people who had only been opening bags” to prepare school meals, he says. 

To help employees acquire an entirely new set of skills, the foundation brings teaching chefs into the schools through its culinary academy. Kitchen workers attend a four-day program where they learn bedrock culinary tasks such as knife skills, vegetable preparation and proper raw protein handling. They also learn management skills such as food buying practices and efficiency in the kitchen. 

If training is the most important aspect of launching a scratch-cooking program, marketing is the most important aspect of maintaining one, Martin says. To make it worthwhile, a district needs to change its food culture. 

“School food is pretty synonymous with hot dogs and tater tots and chips, so when you’re replacing those with roasted potatoes and baked chicken that has actual bones in it, marketing these programs to the kids and making it fun is imperative,” she says. “You can pat yourself on the back if you’re pumping out food that’s nutritious, but unless you’re actually getting those kids to eat the food then, to me, it’s not a success.” 

Employees are encouraged to reimagine their role in the lunchroom. Kitchen workers are educators who create opportunities for kids to try new things and promote healthy food choices. They begin with tasting events, where staff and students preview new menu items and share their opinions. Districts launch new menus at the start of the school year, so they hold promotional events in the spring, complete with voting boxes at elementary schools so students can rank dishes.

Throughout the year, workers describe new dishes in familiar ways to skeptical or inquisitive students. (A pasta casserole may be described as “curly noodles, tomato sauce and cheese.”) They also stock small cups on the line so they can offer samples. At the secondary level, table tents inform students about nutrition and new menu items. 

Districts also aim to elevate the appearance of school food, to make it look less industrial. Martin says it’s important in an age when more and more students pay attention to aesthetics: “From fifth grade up, that’s a pretty savvy customer group,” she says. 

The foundation has seen firsthand that, with resources and creativity, schools can make nutritious scratch meals that appeal to almost any student. 

“It can happen,” Martin says. “Kids actually will eat vegetables.”

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